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The Secret of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin's "Marvelous Orange Tree" Act

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I love educating people on the secret behind some popular magic tricks.

Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a French magician during the mid 1800s, was a remarkable and famous performer. He has influenced many later magicians with his modern style of magic. One of his great acts was called “The Marvelous Orange Tree.”

Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt

The Marvelous Orange Tree Conjuring Act

Robert-Houdin took a handkerchief from one of the lady spectators and rolled it so that it looks like a ball. He then places it beside side by side on a table, an egg, a lemon, and an orange.

He then made the handkerchief smaller and smaller, and appears to be passing through the egg. Picking up the egg, and instead of cracking it open, he did the same, by making it pass through the lemon, and the lemon into the orange.

The orange is pressed between his hands, making it smaller and smaller, giving the impression that it's reversing its age, and eventually disappears and turn into fine powder, which he poured into a silver vial. This vial is then mixed with alcohol and set to fire.

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His assistant then brings him a small orange tree planted in a box, without blossom or fruit, but is filled with green leaves. The vial which now burns with blue flame is placed beneath it and the fumes caused the leaves to sprout out orange blossom in several places on the tree. Waving his wand, the flowers disappear and are now replaced with oranges, which he gave to the audience to prove that they were real. All oranges were given, except a single one at the top of the tree.

Waving his wand again, the orange on the tree now split open into 4 parts and reveals the borrowed handkerchief. Two mechanical butterflies flap their wings and grabbed the top corners of the handkerchief and unfold it as they rose into the air.

Those who have watched The Illusionist (2006) may have seen it, although it’s a more complex form and no magicians have actually been able to perform it. Although it misses some elements, a very similar act was shown on the BBC, performed by Paul Daniels, as seen here:

The Secret

Amazing as it looks, a magic is nothing but a clever illusion. For this act of conjuring, the secret behind it all is automaton. By learning the art of mechanical figures from his father-in-law and after meeting several magicians (by accident) in a store who used mechanics to perform magic, Robert-Houdin learned many mechanical tricks and improved on them that eventually lead to the creation of the Marvelous Orange Tree.

As Pierre Mayer shows, this trick can be reproduced by a clever act of timely mechanical automation, which Robert-Houdin used to push the flowers, pull them back, open the leaves and push out the oranges, and eventually the fluttering butterfly.

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